Observations of America Part 2

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Nowhere has its charms

It’s been almost two months since I came back to the US. Since arriving, I’ve been able to get a few things sorted out. I have a job as a barista at an Italian coffee house. I started planting my garden. I started making candles and soaps again. These were all things that weren’t really possible for me in Korea. I am enjoying having a bit of peace and quiet in the countryside and even though my college degree is basically useless at my current job, it’s less stressful for me.. Overall, I believe it was a good decision to come back. That being said, I still look forward to traveling more (Sweden is slated for the end of the year!) and living abroad again within the next few years.

While in America however, I want to travel around a bit more as well. I haven’t explored the country of my birth as much as I ought to perhaps. So I’ll be blogging about my upcoming visit to New York city and surrounding areas. I’ll also do some throwback posts about Korea and other destinations (I never did France and Germany justice last year, I realize looking back at all of the notes and pictures I took). Here though are a few more observations about America that now strike me as a little odd after living away for a few years.

1. Americans don’t care about English. This, as with all of my generalizations is just that: a generalization. Some people care about grammar and having a good vocabulary and correct pronunciation. Most do not. Most Americans don’t care or don’t even notice if they use an adjective in place of an adverb. When meeting with a childhood friend, he said, “It’s been so long since I seen you!” The English teacher in me wanted to scold him that saw was of course the proper past tense. Sometimes I think if I hear another person pronounce “mozzarella” as “mutz-er-ella” I think my head is going to explode.

For people learning English as a second language, this should be a great relief. English is complicated and confusing. It has its gloriously lovely bits, it’s ugly bits, and it’s ridiculous bits. Even in a country where it is most people’s first language, it’s not taken that seriously by most of the population. And most Americans don’t seriously study a second language either, so if anyone gives you a hard time, just ask them how many languages they know.

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Just a pretty picture of some nearby historic buildings.

2. Tipping is terrible. Because people in service industries get paid such low wages (minimum wage in the US is $7.25, waitresses however only get about $3.00 an hour), many are dependent on tips. Every time you eat out, you must calculate the fact that your meal is going to cost about 20% more, the customary amount for tipping. Tax is also not factored into the price of things ahead of time either as it is in countries such as Korea. An tax varies from state to state in the US from 6-9%. So a ten dollar item will actually cost $10.60-$10.90 depending on where you purchase it.

Some tipping is polite and encouraged in some cases in other countries as well, but it’s not nearly so depended upon as it is in the US. Whether or not to raise the minimum wage by scaling it to the economy and make it a livable wage is still a hot button topic in the US. It was originally established to be the minimum that a person could earn to support themselves, however, it hasn’t increased along with inflation. As for why a waitresses wages are so low, her tips are factored in. The customer, not her employer, is supposed to make up that remaining hourly wage by tips.

3. Disposables are everywhere. Every American home I have been in has a stash of plastic shopping bags that they have collected from the supermarket. Bags are given freely and excessively. I have to beg cashiers to let me bag my own groceries or else I have a dozen bags at the end of a shop. A loaf of bread will be given its own bag. Anything somewhat heavy such as a sack of onions or potatoes will be double bagged to prevent tearing in spite of the fact that they already are packed in their own sack.

My husband and I have purchased our own reusable bags to take with us on grocery runs. We also have taken to shopping at Aldi, a German owned market chain that charges people for bags to keep prices low and encourage reusable bags. But bags aren’t the only problem. People (such as my own father) use paper towels and disposable plates in their own homes. Instead of investing in some tea towels to wash and reuse or washing their dishes regularly, they make mountains of paper, plastic, and styrofoam trash. These items are cheap, plentiful, and convenient, so these habits are much more common than in many other countries that are a bit more “green” conscious. The idea of lessening one’s carbon footprint and eschewing the use of disposables is still seen as an alternative lifestyle in many communities here. If you bring your own bags to the market and bike or walk where it might be more convenient to drive, you might be seen as a bit odd. Which brings me to my last observation of the post…

4. People drive everywhere. In most areas of America, it is absolutely essential to have a car. Unless you live in one of the five or so major cities that have a well saturated public transit system, you must have a car to keep a reasonable schedule for work. I love the convenience of having a car as well. You can stock up on things like, say olive oil, which might be quite heavy and awkward to carry home by walking or on a bus. You can buy a couple gallons of olive oil and have no concerns about how to get it home. However, since moving back, I sometimes feel like my muscles will atrophy with lack of use. Exercise isn’t something I get easily through my every day life, it’s something I have to make time for.

In such a society of convenience and of enthusiastic motorists who love their cars, Americans tend to over-drive. In a large shopping center, they may move their car from shop to shop instead of walking the extra hundred meters. The same with running errands in town. People may take their cars to visit the post office which is only a few blocks from their house. If you choose to walk anywhere further than a block or so to do something, you are often met with surprise. So many people are missing a very simple and pleasurable to way to get some exercise and fresh air.

I’m glad I came back to America and there are many things I am enjoying about my life here. However, it’s a weird place. Like any other, it’s got plenty of quirks that may be hard to understand for others. For me, there has been a big benefit to travel. I can see the ideas and practices from other countries and cultures. It helps me to have a better perspective on life here as well, not just accepting things as they way they are. I believe that is the point of travel, to give perspective and exchange ideas.

Some Observations of America

It’s been less than a week since we touched down in America. After so long outside the country, it’s a bit of an adjustment. Here a few observations.

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Cliche’ wing of the plane shots
  1. People are losing their minds over chip and pin cards. They’ve been the standard in other countries for many years, in some cases, even a few decades. I haven’t had to swipe my card and then sign for something in years. I even had to write a check for something the other day. It was shocking.
  2. Small town America is chatty. My husband has always been in bigger cities. It was a shock to the system for him when strangers in the local super market randomly made conversation. He was perplexed and suspicious. Even I’ve fallen out of the habit in spite of growing up in a small town.
  3. The food isn’t what I remember. I missed so much food, but now that I’m here I’m not as excited as I thought I’d be. I am definitely happy to have the awesome American super markets again ($2 strawberries!) and have a large oven to use, however, eating out isn’t as exciting. I was super pumped to get some Mexican food, which is expensive and hard to come by in Korea. I realized I’m not used to the portion sizes anymore. Even though I was very hungry, I could only finish about half my meal.

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    Fine American Dining
  4. Everyone is less formal in the way they dress and groom. In Korea, makeup and skin care are taken very seriously. Personal appearance has a very high cultural value which can be both refreshing or irritating. Here, the attitude is just the opposite. If people are just out running errands or having some food, they are often dressed very casually or even a bit sloppily. Though it is nice to see people taking pride in how they present themselves, at least I feel less conspicuous if I didn’t have time to do anything but throw my hair into a pony tail and rub on some Burt’s Bees.
  5. Some things are very open here. In spite of the conservative streak that runs through American society, they are pretty open here about some things. At least compared to Korea. Your regular town pharmacy will stock a small selection of adult toys in it’s “family planning” section here. You would never see that in Korea. Though, it’s still a far cry from Germany, where such things are sometimes stocked in vending machines in pub toilets alongside the tampons and headache medicine.

We’re back in America for a while now, though certainly not for good. It’s still early days for us as we get settled in here. I still have a back log of posts about Korea, a few trips planned over the next year, and new American adventures to write about. Stay tuned!

5 Things I’ll Miss About Seoul, 5 I Won’t

After three and a half years, I’m leaving Korea. It’s time to start new chapter, so my husband and I are heading to America. Our current plan is to spend 1 year (2 max) in America before making our next international move.

I’m very excited to start the next chapter, but I know there are a couple of things I’ll miss about Korea. So here’s a mini-catalogue.

I’ll miss… the simplicity of my life here. Living in Seoul lets me live without a car. Public transportation is amazing, affordable, and easy to navigate. I’ve lived in four apartments in Korea, so the constant moving has made me pare down to my necessities. When I think about my friends and family back in the States with their houses full of stuff, I feel overwhelmed. I like keeping my possessions lean, so that when opportunity knocks, you can follow it. It also encourages you to save your money and buy investment pieces instead of cheap throwaway items.

I won’t miss… the occasional lack of creature comforts. Perhaps growing up in America spoiled me, but I always feel a sense of dread using public bathrooms in Korea. Will it have warm water? Soap? Paper towels or a hand dryer? More often than not, washing your hands is just giving them a cursory blast of icy water in a bathroom that might not even be heated in the middle of winter. Apartments are made of concrete that is often unsealed. In the summer, the humidity can seep through your wallpaper. In the winter, your walls are always cold to the touch. And unless you’re living in an apartment that’s brand new and quite expensive, you won’t have a bathtub if you live in the city. I miss baths.

I’ll miss the safety. Korea has a very low crime rate. I had my own brush with danger at the end of my first year here (more about that at some point), but school children can walk themselves to and from school in the middle of a busy city without much worry. America has a much higher crime rate and I can’t help but have concerns about the perception people will have of me and my husband. He’s mixed race and I’m white. Here, we’re both just considered American (in spite of his Korean mother), or even the broader sweep of “foreign,” but in America, prejudice is alive and well. That’s not to say that prejudice doesn’t exist in Korea. Korea can be quite xenophobic, but since we exist outside of the mainstream society, Korean people aren’t offended by our relationship. We are categorically the same to them; we’re not Koreans.

I won’t miss… the lack of diversity. Only about 2% of the population of Korea is not Korean. This can lead to many misconceptions about non Korean people. All white people are assumed to be American, or at least English speakers. All black people are assumed to be from somewhere in Africa. I swear, if another person expresses shock that I can eat Korean food and use chopsticks, I might scream. Things tend to be over-generalized. It’s either Korean, or not. Though everything that isn’t Korean is quite a wide band. For example, Korea is certainly not the only culture with spicy food. It’s not even the spiciest. My friend’s mother is Sri Lankan and her “toned-down” curry was much hotter than anything I experienced in Korea. Cultural ignorance is rampant all over the world, but at least in some countries there is a bit more diverse population to learn from.

I’ll miss… all the cute coffee shops and fun places to go. Being in a big city comes with the advantage of having a lot of options for entertainment. From a handful of nice parks to escape rooms, you can usually find something cool to do. Coffee shops are plentiful and some are really cozy. Now that drip coffee has become trendy, coffee shops that roast their own beans are becoming more common. Nice drinks and a pleasant atmosphere at a local coffee shop can be a lifesaver. Most Korean apartments aren’t sized for entertaining, so meeting with friends, having a casual date, or even getting work done, are all coffee shop activities.

I won’t miss… fighting for space. Any area that has trendy cafes or entertainment is inevitably flooded with people, particularly on the weekends. Festivals and events in the city will have you getting pressed by possibly millions of people. In such a big city that has developed so quickly, most people are numb to it, just seeing other people as obstacles to wordlessly shoulder past. Rush hour on any of the main train lines is a similar nightmare of people wedging themselves into others as tightly as possible so they don’t have to wait for another train. Sometimes I really miss personal space and people saying “excuse me” in any language.

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I’ll miss… the food. I really like Korean food with very few exceptions. And I love that eating out can be quite affordable if you don’t mind sticking to Korean staples. Kimbap shops and noodle places can get you a filling and relatively healthy meal for about $4 usd. Side dishes are refilled for free giving you extra value, which is great when you’re saving up for something (e.g. a wedding and an international move).

I won’t miss… grocery prices. Weirdly though, sometimes eating in isn’t much cheaper that going out. Things that are basic kitchen staples to me are priced luxuriously here. Fresh produce can be easily 2-3 times the price I paid in America. Basic vegetables like carrot, cabbage, and potato are not unreasonable, but most fruits are absurdly expensive. Buying off local fruit trucks can get you a better deal, but they aren’t usually as consistant. Beef is so expensive that I’ve only bought it a handful of times since moving here, substituting for more economical meats (such as pork). Nuts are priced like they’re stocking a hotel mini-bar. Canned tuna is about 3 times the price I’m used to as well. Keeping a stock of healthy snacks and ingredients can be a challenge.

I’ll miss… my friends. I’ve made so many great friends here. Both locally based and others that have moved to Korea from around the world. Of course, many of my friends love traveling too, so seeing them again becomes a greater possibility. And since my husband has family in Korea, the likelihood of our visiting again in the next couple years is pretty high. I’m fortunate to be taking the best friend I made in Korea with me.

I won’t miss… my job. Honestly, I’m feeling quite burnt out by the hagwon system in Korea. This has been a stressful year for me. I didn’t mesh well with the school, and I don’t agree with the educational trends in Korea overall. Chasing kindergartners around all day exhausts me.

Korea was quite a ride. It’s terribly cliche, but I really grew up while I was living here. I lived on my own for the first time, I supported myself, I made amazing friends, I found the love of my life. But, I also know it’s time to move on. I don’t think that staying here will help me grow in the directions that I want to. Korea was a very necessary chapter in my life, but it’s not the whole book.

Winter at Herb Island

I really like plants. Back in America I grew a garden of herbs and vegetables, frolicked in woodlands, and even made my own plant essence rich soaps and skincare. I was kind of a hippie. At heart, I still am. Sometimes living in a city like Seoul can be really depressing for me. It’s gloomy and grey with parks and gardens too spread out for my taste. So my husband decided to take me to Herb Island in Pocheon on New Year’s weekend.

Pocheon is so far north that it touches the DMZ. It’s also pretty rural. He had been there once before and thought the trip might lift some of my winter blues. I’m not sure if it did the trick, but here are my impressions.

1. It’s not an island. I have no idea why they call it Herb Island when it’s landlocked. There’s a river nearby, but that’s about it.

2. It’s a theme park. I get it. Growing herbs out in the middle of nowhere isn’t that exciting of a premise. But like most family weekend places in Korea, it has weird faux European architecture, rides, and cartoon characters. It’s all about selling you stuff.

3. The herbs are legit though. Throughout the park they sell teas, jams, bath products, and candles. Some are made from the herbs grown in herb island. And the teas are pretty delicious. They have some nice soaps and bath bombs too.

4. There are some unique activities too. There is a spa  where you can get aromatherapy treatments and massages with products made on Herb Island. There’s also a craft shop where you can make your own candles and other handicrafts under the guidance of an employee. If you’ve never tried crafting before, it might be a fun environment to try it.

5. There is such a thing as too many twinkle lights. I love twinkle lights. At home we have string lights above our bed. I like having soft light before bed to help me wind down and feel cozy. Herb Island went too far. Possibly because it was winter, there were lights on everything. All the dormant plants in the field were covered by them even. And they were in very bright colors that hurt my eyes when the sun went down.

6. The botanical garden and plant museum are the nicest spots in winter. It’s quite balmy inside with a mix of local and tropical plants. Watch out for the rosemary though, there are rosemary bushes everywhere you turn in the botanical gardens, likely because they use it in many of their products. In the plant museum you can buy your own potted plants to take home.

In summary: I’m glad I went, but I was a bit disappointed overall. I guess I was expecting too much. Very few attractions in Korea offer an organic experience. Everything is polished up and pre-packaged to make money from people looking for a little relief from the soulless city life, but don’t have the time or inclination to really get their hands dirty. I was hoping for a chance to get close to nature. I don’t want to sound crabby. It was a change of scene from Seoul, and I got some delicious hibiscus tea, but for the distance of travel, I think Nami Island is a better spot (and an actual island).

2016 in life and travel

2016 will go down in history as an overall disappointing year for most people. To be honest, it was a difficult year for me too. I was injured for a lot of it and having to undergo some expensive physical therapy. I had a difficult year as a teacher as well. Plus a year of stress regarding family matters as well.

But 2016 was also really great in a couple of ways. I went to Germany and France both for the first time, along the way visiting many friends in both those countries. I came back to Korea and here I got engaged to my boyfriend. This past fall we tied the knot as well. Planning a non-Korean style wedding in Korea was incredibly stressful, but the day itself went off well and was a fun and intimate affair.

So I want to share a couple of my favorite pictures that I took this year but haven’t shared on this blog yet. All are unfiltered and largely unedited. Just candid shots taken with my phone. I already did a post featuring many photos of Hamburg, so I’ll focus this post on some other places I enjoyed this year.

  1. Seoul Forest~ one of my favorite spots in the the city. A sanctuary of green in Korea’s concrete capital city. My husband and I ended up having our engagement photos taken here a few months after this picture was taken.

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2. Falkenlust, Brühl~ I visited a friend living in Cologne, Germany and we took a day trip out to Augustburg Castle and its companion, Falkenlust. The architecture was beautiful and the sprawling grounds were a pleasure to ramble through.

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3. The confluence of the Saône and the Rhône rivers in Lyon, France~ Lyon is a gorgeous city that is sliced by two rivers. If you visit the confluence (and the very eclectic Musée des Confluences) you can stand in both at once.

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4. A Chacun Sa Tasse, Lyon~ a really lovely salon de thé (or tea shop) in Croix-Rousse. I went there with a dear friend who has worked in tea shops for several years. The place was highly recommended by her and I was not disappointed. It was cozy and had a great selection of teas as well as other drinks.

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5. Musée d’Orsay, Paris~ I didn’t make it to the Louvre. I was trying to avoid too much cliche during my week in Paris. Musée d’Orsay has an impressive collection of sculpture and Impressionist paintings which I particularly enjoyed. A perfect way to spend half a day or so.

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6. The Pantheon, Paris~ On a gloomy day I visited some historical sites around Paris including The Pantheon. I also may have been snuck into the Sorbonne during distinctly non-visiting hours by a friend of a friend who is a student there on that same day.

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7. Versaille~ I really need to do a whole post where I just dump all the photos I took on my day out to Versaille. The scale of the place is just incredible and even in winter time, the grounds were splendid.

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7. Nami Island, Gapyeong-gun, South Korea~ Rounding off my pictures with one more taken in Korea this year. This one on an excursion out of the city to the famous (and often filmed on) Nami Island. Like most attractions in Korea, it’s a bit theme park-like and crowded. But, it is truly beautiful and feels like a nice retreat from the city. It’s definitely worth a visit.

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Hopefully you enjoyed my enthusiastic, but by no means professional cellphone photography. Looking back on the past year makes me hungry for more adventures this year.I know it will be a year of big changes, but I’m feeling positive that most of them will be for the better.

I hope we can all have a 2017 full of travel and love.

Cozy and Quaint: Hamburg, Germany

Last November I was supposed to fly to Paris. A few weeks before my departure date, the city experienced a terrorist attack and was put into a state of emergency. My flight was canceled. I thought about canceling my whole trip and I’m sure that’s what my boyfriend and my family would have preferred. But I’d been planning this trip for half a year. It was the culmination of a promise I had made to myself long before that. So I changed my itinerary slightly.

I left for Europe a month later than my original plan and I arrived first in Hamburg, Germany. Giving Paris time to settle, I would save it for last. Traveling from Hamburg to Cologne, then crossing the border into France– going to Lyon, and finally Paris, where I would fly out.

An old Oxford friend of mine is currently living in Hamburg and she invited me to come stay with her. I knew little of the city and had no real expectations. That gave me the chance to simply take the city as it was. An unusually organic traveling experience in the age of mapping out and researching everything to death.

Weirdly, when I find myself missing Europe, I find myself longing most to return to Hamburg. I was bewitched by this port city.

It’s a very watery place where rivers converge and form large, lake area quite close to my friend’s flat. Even in January, the off-season, the walking paths around the water were full of people on bikes, moms with strollers, couples with dogs. Cafes peppered the street and riverbanks, some on the water even had “boat-up” windows for the summer season.

It’s a big enough city to have a huge library, a big central shopping area, and a moderately diverse population (in my quest to cook Korean food for my hosts, I discovered several Asian markets in the immediate vicinity). It’s a very walkable and bikeable city due to its size and wide sidewalks. But it’s also fitted with a metro and bus system. The public transit was surprisingly quaint, still employing paper passes and physical ticket checks. For day to day commuting, that might prove a bit annoying. But as a break from the super high-speed, digitized world of Seoul, it was refreshing and kind of endearing.

On Sundays, nearly everything shut except some local bakeries and a local street market with homemade pasta and cheese, fresh pastries, licorice, and produce. I may have overdone it on bread and beer actually. I was even moved to try salted licorice, a phenomenon found mainly in the northern parts of Europe. Germany’s licorice isn’t as strong as the sort that some Swedish friends tried to trick me into eating once. After a few days, I started to see how it can be strangely satisfying.

Even in winter, it was a stunning city. Lots of great food and cool museums. I’d love to see it in full bloom some summer.

My Korean Apartment Hunt

Horror of horrors. When I got my new job in Seoul this spring my new boss said to me, “so where will you live?” At that moment I was between apartments, crashing on a friend’s floor about 45 minutes away from the school. Typically workplaces will have suggested accommodations (which you are free to refuse for something else) or will help you deal with real estate agents.

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Not my new school. Most of the teacher at my new school are more established. They’ve been in Korea for several years or they are married and already settled into an apartment with their partner. I’ve been in Korea a while too, but this was the first time I’ve had to go through the hunting on my own. Well, on my own is a strong word. I had a few supportive friends and a lovely fiance to help with the actually visiting places and talking to estate agents.

Ultimately it was overwhelming, but also somewhat satisfying to be in control, making deals and negotiating. I had some agents who were amazing, some who were super pushy. Some spoke great English. Some spoke zero English. The whole process felt like some final exam for how adapted to Korean life I’ve become.

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Yongsan district

Getting an apartment in Seoul can be an ordeal for many reasons. Things get snapped up quickly in a metropolitan area of more than 20 million. Many newcomers to Korea are also shocked at the cost of a deposit. For a basic studio apartment, it can be almost ten thousand dollars for your deposit– more than a year of monthly rent in many cases. Fortunately, most employers will sponsor your deposit (they’ll get it back once you move out).

I was daunted, but decided that this was my chance. I could finally have an apartment that wasn’t crap. My first apartment was a studio that was so small, it was bursting at the seams with a bed and a desk as the only furniture. My second apartment was more spacious, but suffered from mold and was two subway stops away from a decent supermarket. The third apartment (which I shared with my friend from New Zealand) also had a severe mold problem and neighbors who were always experiencing some form of screaming, dish breaking, death threatening domestic upset. Perhaps that’s a story for another time.

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So there were a variety of tools I used for my search:

Zikbang App: This a Korea real estate app. You can narrow your app by area, price, and other factors. You can also star your favorite properties. Through the app you can contact agents. The downsides are that it’s pretty much entirely in Korean. After a couple years here, that’s not a problem for me. My Korean’s not great, but I can read it well. I had Korean friends call the estate agents for me because I’m not that confident.

Craigslist: Many listing for smaller, less expensive properties can be found on Craigslist. A lot of English-friendly agents will post shorter term, low deposit places there specifically looking for foreign workers and students who might be staying in Korea for less than a year

Seoul Homes: This site had a great variety of listings throughout the city. Some agents were English friendly on that site as well. I highly recommend that site.

Over the course of two weeks, I saw about 40 apartments. I was completely exhausted by the end of it. My work is in Gangnam district, but typically living in the Gangnam area means paying for the neighborhood more than the tiny apartment, so I widened my search to Yongsan, even as far west as Guro.

I realized a couple of things. Many loft apartments are not worth in. Having a loft was something I really wanted to create a bedroom space separate from the rest of the house. Nearly every loft I saw was about three feet from floor to ceiling. That means you could only sleep on a floor mat. When we get married, my fiance is bringing his plush queen size bed with him. That’s about a foot thick. So if the cat knocks something over and we bolt upright in the night, our foreheads would be at real risk for concussion. Lofts tend to bulk up the price tag one to two hundred thousand won a month as well.

If a building is less than five years old, that also adds expense. Elevators in the building are great, especially if it’s over five stories, but that usually comes with a maintenance fee slapped on top of your rent. Living on a lower floor will often be slightly cheaper because in a high rise building, higher floors are more desirable.

The neighborhood is extremely important too. Having markets in walking district, as well as close access to train and bus stations is extremely important to your comfort and time. Sometimes you will have to pay a bit more for prime spots.

After a couple of overpriced high rises, and a few cheap, but scary places in the middle of a slum that looked like the perfect spot for a murder, I finally settled on a villa about a 20 minute walk or ten minute bus ride from my work. Yep, I ended up in Gangnam. The price is about the same as my apartment in the north of the city, but it’s about a third of the size. Villas are nice though because they are studios plus. Mine has a little patio room where my washer is so I don’t have to have it in the kitchen or bathroom like most Korean apartments.

It’s about ten years old, but the landlord is super nice. And it’s on a fourth floor with no elevator, which is very livable. Not a hint of mold. So, it’s pricey for the size, but overall, it is the nicest place I’ve lived in Seoul. I guess I passed the test.

Are you on the apartment hunt? What have your experiences been?